In order to avoid writing an entire book on the Alexandrian school, I will endeavor to wrap up our study of it for now. It is readily apparent that the school was very influential not only to those who were educated in it, but also to those from other areas who visited the school to interact with its scholars. The views of Clement, Origen, and Athanasius on the subject of universal reconciliation were very common in the early church, as we will continue to see. At times these views were surely passed on from the Alexandrian school to other places, but it is also true that they were arrived at independently as well, based on Scripture. We will soon see this was the case in the school of Antioch.
But before moving on from the school of Alexandria, I will mention one more of its leaders because his story is particularly interesting: Didymus the Blind (circa 313-circa 398). According to all sources that I have seen, Didymus became blind by the age of four and was therefore unable to read the Scriptures for himself. Nevertheless, his desire to learn was so great that “he became one of the most learned men of his period,” according the Catholic Encyclopedia. This same source gives insight into how this remarkable man achieved such a feat, despite his inability to read:
Didymus studied with ardor, and his vigils were long and frequent, not for reading but for listening, that he might gain by hearing what others obtained by seeing. When the reader fell asleep for weariness, Didymus did not repose, but as it were chewed the cud (says Rufinus) of what he had heard, until he seemed to have inscribed it on the pages of his mind. Thus in a short time he amassed a vast knowledge of grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, arithmetic, and geometry, and a perfect familiarity with Holy Scripture. (Chapman 1908)
His knowledge of scripture and incredible memory are confirmed by many sources. It is said that Jerome praised Didymus, saying that he "surpassed all of his day in knowledge of the Scriptures" (Hanson 1899). And Schaff writes that “He learned to write by means of wooden tablets in which the characters were engraved; and he became so familiar with the Holy Scriptures by listening to the church lessons, that he knew them almost all by heart” (Schaff 1910).
Undoubtedly, Didymus’ knowledge of Scripture was a primary reason for the great respect and admiration of his contemporaries and students. We are told by several sources that he was highly esteemed by Saint Athanasius, who appointed him as head of the Alexandrian catechetical school, knowing full well that he believed in universal reconciliation and that he was a follower of much of Origen’s teaching. This of course should not be surprising, given Athanasius' clear agreement with universal reconciliation which we described in the previous chapter. We also know that many well-known church leaders were his students, including Saint Gregory Nazianzen, Saint Jerome, Rufinus, Palladius, and Isidore. Schaff tells us that many of these men “sat at his feet with admiration” (See Schaff, and "Contributions to Christendom").
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that “He prayed earnestly in his youth, we are told by Rufinus, not for the sight of his bodily eyes, but for the illumination of the heart” and that “St. Jerome indeed habitually spoke of him not at "the blind" but as "the Seer" (or as other sources put it, "Didymus the Seeing") (Chapman 1908). That his prayer for illumination of the heart was answered seems confirmed by others who shared Jerome’s view about his spiritual vision. The highly respected monk, Saint Anthony of the Desert, said to him: “Do not be sad that you have no eyesight with which the animals, and even the insects, share, but remember that you have divine insight with which you can see the light of divinity” ("Contributions to Christendom").
Didymus positive reputation was well-known even beyond Christian circles. The orator Libanius, himself not a Christian, wrote to an official in Egypt: "You cannot surely be ignorant of Didymus, unless you are ignorant of the great city wherein he has been night and day pouring out his learning for the good of others” (Chapman 1908).
Modern scholars, too, esteem him as a highly devoted Christian who based his teaching on the Bible. Frances Young, a Cambridge-educated professor and “author of numerous books in patristics and New Testament studies” describes Didymus the Blind as follows:
Didymus was a scholar and a teacher; but for all his academic attainments, he was essentially a pious monk and a conservative churchman. His scholarship was entirely devoted to the elucidation of scripture and the doctrines of the Church. In these areas of specialty, he displayed little originality, though he undoubtedly contributed to the consolidation of the orthodox position. His main source-book, his real inspiration, was the Bible, and in the long-term, it was as an exegete that he had some abiding influence (Young 2010).
Nevertheless, despite his renown, deep commitment to the faith, and sound biblical exegesis, Didymus suffered a similar fate as Origen. His works were posthumously anathematized and many of them lost to history. These unwarranted anathemas were not due to his belief in universal restoration, since in them "nothing is said in condemnation of his pronounced Universalism" (Hanson). It seems to be universally acknowledged, however, that he was a believer in the ultimate salvation of all people. Consider his own words: "In the liberation of all no one remains a captive; at the time of the Lord's passion, he alone (the devil) was injured, who lost all the captives he was keeping" (Hanson, citing Sermon Major de fide. Migne, vol. XXVI, pp. 1263-1294).
The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, seems somewhat confused about his views on this matter:
The doctrine of the "restitution of all things" is attributed to him by St. Jerome; but he speaks very often of eternal punishment … He is fond of explaining that God's punishments are remedial (Chapman 1908).
The source of this confusion is undoubtedly the fact that Didymus used and understood the term “eternal punishment” in the way it was understood by the Greeks as “aionion punishment” or punishment of the age to come. It is likely that Didymus simply used the same words as Christ, (kolasin aionion) to describe the remedial punishment of people, taking them as they were intended. This is further proof that these Greek words did not mean “never-ending torture” to native Greek-speakers. The apparent contradiction of Didymus’ references to “eternal” punishment and the “restitution of all things” is thus easily resolved by understanding the meaning of the Greek words he employed as he understood them. Indeed, this is also the best way to resolve similar perceived conflicts in the biblical texts. If you do not impose the incorrect view that aionion has to mean “eternal,” the Bible verses that speak of universal reconciliation, unity, and subjection are quite easy to understand and harmonious with God’s righteous judgment. God is able to judge the whole world and still be its Savior. He is able to punish sin and still “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).
Didymus’ understood this harmony of judgment with universal salvation in the same manner as so many of the early Church Fathers. Judgment was purifying and purposeful, leading to unity, reconciliation and subjection to Christ. These views were based on the biblical texts and were very prevalent in the early church.
J.W. Hanson points out that the works of the Alexandrian theologians and others who believed in universal salvation “are not from a few isolated authorities but from the most eminent in the church, and those who gave tone to theological thought, and shaped and gave expression to public opinion. There can be no doubt that they are true exponents of the doctrines of their day, and that man's universal deliverance from sin was the generally accepted view of human destiny, prevalent in the Alexandrine church from the death of the apostles to the end of the Fourth Century.”
Hanson also cites the protestant German historian Johann Karl Ludwig Gieseler who accurately perceived that this belief was not exclusive to the Alexandrian school, but rather pervasive throughout the church:
Gieseler records that "the belief in the inalienable capability of improvement in all rational beings, and the limited duration of future punishment, was so general, even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen that, whatever may be said of its not having risen without the influence of Origen's school, it had become entirely independent of his system." So that doctrine may be said to have prevailed all over Christendom, East and West, among "orthodox" and heterodox alike.
Based off of the primary source research I have completed, this estimation is certainly correct. Universal restoration was held, not just by the Alexandrians, but even by their theological opponents. To see just how true this is, we must now turn to our investigation of the other theological schools of the early church.
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Citations and Notes
Chapman, John. "Didymus the Blind." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. Retrieved 17 Jun. 2018 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04784a.htm .
“Contributions to Christendom.” The Coptic Orthodox Church | Coptic Church, www.copticcentre.com/the-coptic-orthodox-church/contributions-to-christendom/ .
Hanson, J.W. “Universalism The Prevailing Doctrine.” Tentmaker Ministries, 1999, www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html . Originally Published in 1899. Boston and Chicago. Universalist Publishing House. The e-book is also available for free here and I am citing from pages 202- 205 (according to the e-book navigation pagination), or 206-209 of the print book pagination.
Lascaratos, J, and S Marketos. “Didymus the Blind: an Unknown Precursor of Louis Braille and Helen Keller.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7995235 .
Schaff, Philip. “Chapter X: Ecclesiastical Literature of the Ante-Nicene Age, and Biographical Sketches of the Church-Fathers.” History of the Christian Church, Volume III, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910. Electronically published 1998. http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/3_ch10.htm .
Young, Frances M., and Andrew Teal. From Nicaea to Chalcedon: a Guide to the Literature and Its Background . SCM Press, 2010. (pages 91-101 cited here: https://reformedreader.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/didymus-the-blind-d-398-ad/ )